Phantasy, Symbolism and the Origins of Human Sexuality


Freud’s views on phantasy and symbolism deal with what has become the basic object of inquiry for psychoanalysis: the manner and mechanisms whereby our experience of the world, of ourselves and of others is permeated by phantasy. When psychoanalysts talk of ‘psychic meanings’, they are adverting to the fact, often disturbing and incomprehensible, that our ‘psychic life’ – our behaviour, our perceptions and our feelings – appears to possess a dimension which suggests that it is other than what it presents itself to our consious attention. Since Freud, we have come to regard the investigation of this “unconsious” dimension of psychic meaning a matter for the special methods or techniques of psychoanalysis – largely, though not exclusively, a method which relies on the production of associative verbal responses to material taken from different aspects of mental life.

It is not necessary to state, nor to rehearse, the difficulties and objections that have been raised about this special technique and Freud’s various articulations of how it should be employed. In a variety of fundamental ways the investigation of the unconscious does not conform to the accepted and acceptable canons of “objective scientific inquiry: it is not experimental, it is not predictive and it quite often appears to arbitrarily impose an interpretation on the phenomena. This methodological debate over Freud’s contribution shows few signs of abaiting. In recent years, however, and mainly. due to a re-reading of Freud by Lacan and a break-away group of French psychoanalysts and philosophers, we have been presented with the possibility of a different, a more philosophical, approach to some of the difficult issues surrounding the study of the unconscious. It may well be that some of the methodological issues which have beset the discussion of psychoanalysis in the past, and continue to do so, can be by-passed once we realise that we have misconstrued, with Freud’s connivance no doubt, what it was that he discovered.

Without exploring this issue fully at this stage, it may be worth pointing out that the methodological debate always seems to reach an impasse: the dimension of ‘psychic meaning’ the psychoanalysts talk about is either the effect on us – the ‘subjects’ – of an external social reality, the psychological product, as it were, of the socially shaping forces in a culture, or it is the projection of imaginary constructions onto the environment by the subject, projections which ultimately have their source in the biological constitution and life-exigencies of the human animal, but which may vary in expression from culture to culture. On this view, though the human infant is “inserted into these ‘cultural imaginings’, it is physiologically and biologically ‘primed’ with the dispositions to acquire and to need such imaginings.

Freud’s ‘unconscious’, however, and the technique he developed for investigating it, stubbornly refuse to be fitted clearly into either of these two broad outlooks. His account of infantile sexuality and, later, his theory of the construction of the ego do not present them as the effects of a social reality on the human individual, though space is allowed to the impact the adult world has on the infant’s psyche. If anything, what Freud identifies as the drives playa limiting role on whatever social causality there maybe, since whatever the transformations and vicissitudes of these drives, they retain both a conceptual and a real link with the vital or biological order. Consequently, we do not find in Freud, nor could we expect it from him, a technique of investigation which bases itself on the formulation of psycho-social laws or hypotheses to be tested against individual behaviour. This is not to say, of course, that Freud is oblivious to the psychological impact of socialising factors on individuals. Nevertheless, they do not form the primary or even an important, aspect of his inquiries – how else would we explain his almost obsessive emphasis on the witnessing or the phantasy thereof, of parental intercourse by the Wolf Man?

Similarly, though Freud, particularly in his ‘cultural’ writings, can generate the impression that the Oedipal myth, the murder of the father, etc., are repressed racial memories, imaginery re-enactments of terrible deeds burried in the deep past of the race,’ we would be mistaken to see Freud as doing anything more than extending, whether legitimately or not, over into group-psychology what he regarded as insights gained in the investigation of psychic life in individuals. There is nothing, after all, in the concept of psychic reality to limit it to individual rather than group phenomena. But to think that psychic reality in its group manifestations can provide further fruitful clues as to its nature is definitely not to regard it as another name for the imaginery projections of a culture. Psychoanalysis is not a method of ‘cultural’ interpretation, the analysis of the myths and imaginings which human beings, taken collectively, have developed in order to satisfy their (given?) need for meaning and significance. If psychoanalysis were such a method, Freud would be guilty of a gross disregard of basic rules of interpretation, e.g. the fact that the test of the plausibility of an interpretation cannot be that the author of the item being interpreted is persuaded of its validity, or, again, that the fact that there can be widely divergent interpretations of an item (a symbol, a poem, a dream, etc.) does not in itself constitute a weakness in the interpretation, so long as it succeeds to a large measure in securing a “fit” between the interpretation and what is interpreted. Freud’s “interpretations” diverge markedly from such interpretations. For though he uses the word “interpretation” when discussing symptoms. or dreams, his interpretations are highly reconstructed formulations of what he put before a patient (or himself!) to work on. A Freudian or psychoanalytic “interpretation” – one is tempted to say – is a device for keeping the flow of words coming, for overcoming a cessation, a resistance, to the activity of recognising psychic reality, whether that stoppage is due to the analyst or his patient.

The trouble with viewing the unconscious in terms of the alternatives outlined above – as what is revealed by the study of a psycho-social causality or as the findings of a technique of cultural interpretation seems to be that it leaves nothing distinct for Freud’s method of psychoanalysis to be uniquely investigating! Thus, Freud’s special object of study, the way in which phantasy constructs a kind of reality – psychic reality – is made to evaporate before our very eyes. We are left with a method cut loose from its “object”, with some ”therapeutic’ virtues being debatably attributed to it.

Obviously something has gone seriously wrong here. We need to look at Freud’s text once more, not so much to divine hidden intentions or to detect secret projects, but to locate in its very construction the way in which Freud’s object of inquiry, viz. phantasy’s structuring of psychic reality, is unfolded and articulated. The question whether the method of psychoanalysis is an adequate method to study such a subject-matter is a subsequent question. Questions of the adequacy of a method always are; we can only judge the strengths or weaknesses of a method of inquiry in relation to the distinctive features of what it sets out to investigate.

This paper is both partial and preliminary. It is partial because it only deals with Freud’s theory of human sexuality, and only with a small portion of the theory at that; and it is preliminary in that it does not investigate fully Freud’s views on the way phantasy structures psychic reality. The central claim of the paper is that what Freud set out in the highly original text of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality is the fundamental discovery that human sexuality is essentially phantasmatic; and that sexuality in human beings is the thing it is because phantasy is the inescapable setting of its origin. This entails that for Freud sexuality in human beings is not a biological given, as the commonly accepted view of saxuality would have it, but emerges as an aspect of psychic reality in the human being~ The paper traces the conceptual implications of this reversal by Freud, and argues that the very emergence of a sexual, psychic,reality must, for Freud, imply a rather special relation between sexuality and the vital or biological order. The paper concludes with some brief remarks on the methodological implications of how this special relation is to be investigated.


The justification of the claim that human sexuality is essentially phantasmatic needs to focus on how Freud understands drives. Though Freud attempts to give a general characterisation of drives later (e.g. in “Instincts and their Vicissitudes”), what he describes in the Three Essays is the drive par excellence, the sexual drive. Indeed, one could agree with Laplanche (cf. Life and Death in Psychoanalysis, The John Hopkins U.P., 1976) that the dominant line in Freud’s thought is that,

it is sexuality which represents the model of every drive and probably constitutes the only drive in the strict sense of the term‘.(ch. l, p. 8, Laplanche’s emphasis).

Freud employs two terms Trieb (“drive”) and Instinkt (“instinct”), and the unfortunate consequence of translating Trieb by instinct is that it obscures the fact that Freud uses Instinkt to designate something entirely different from what he understands by sexuality. Instinkt, in Freud’s language, is a performed behavioural pattern, whose arrangement is determined hereditarily and which is repeated according to modalities relatively adapted to a certain type of object. The term Trieb comes to designate a reality which bears a complex relation to Instinkt: according to Laplanche it involves an analogy, a differenceand a derivation of the former from the latter. As he points out (op. cit., p. 10) this relation is not to be taken as a nominal or conceptual one. It concerns the real derivation of one reality from another – the derivation in man of drives from instincts. Freud is tracing the movement of the “thing itself”.

The importance of this insight by Laplanche is that it enables one to locate precisely Freud’s insistence on the biological order in its relation to the subject-matter of psychoanalysis, and his equally resolute emphasis on the difference between psychic reality and the vital order.

The general theoretical analysis of drive Freud gives in “Instincts and their Vicissitudes” is, as a general analysis, also valid for an instinct. The concept of drive is analysed in terms of four component elements or dimensions: “impetus” (Drang) “aim” (Ziel), “object” (Objekt) and “source” (Quelle).

A brief discussion of each of these will provide the materials for the main argument of this paper.

Freud defines impetus as the motor factor in the drive, “The amount of force or the measure of the demand for work which it represents. The character of exercising pressure is common to all drives; it is in fact their very essence”. This “demand for work” remains the central aspect of what is called “the economic point of view” in psychoanalysis: if there is work, a modification in the organism, it is because there is a force which, ultimately, can only be defined as a measure of a quantity of work. Notice here, that though at the level of the economic factor there maybe no detectable difference between drive and instinct, the economic factor, the impetus, is but an abstract hypostatisation of an element or aspect of the drive. If there is indeed a derivation of drives from instincts in man, it is this economic factor, an abstract element, which remains constant in this derivation. It is what in a drive represents instinctual pressure.

The aim, Freud tells us in the Three Essays, is “the act to which the drive is driven”. In the case of a performed instinct, it is the series of acts which results in a certain accomplishment. This accomplishment is, according to “Instincts and their Vicissitudes”, always the same: the only “final” aim is always satisfaction defined in a general and abstract way, the appeasing of the tension caused by the impetus, the Drang. But why is it that it is specific and determinate acts, eating, looking, making love, etc., which are the final aims of the various drives (instincts)? Why is not this final aim simply appeasement?

For suppose that the ‘”final” aim of the drive was simply appeasement. Then, the concept of “aim”, like that of “impetus” would be a hypostatised abstraction of an element of the drive. As such it could remain a constant factor in the derivation of drives from instincts in man – the way we saw that the economic factor could plausibly be regarded as being such a factor. But what characterises the “aim” of the sexual drive in humans as revealed in clinical observations is that “eating” or “looking” can be part of the impulse to make love – that they are components of the same, the sexual, drive. It would seem, therefore, that the hypothesis that by the “aim” of a drive we are designating abstractly a factor in a drive which remains constant in the derivation of drives from instincts in human beings is not permissible. The notion of an “aim” of a drive, though abstractly introduced as a correlate of “impetus”, will depend for its significance on the way sexuality and other drives – if there are any – arise in human beings.


For Freud the aim of the drive constantly calls into play two other factors: at times what he calls the “object” of the drive, at other times what he refers to as the “source” of the drive. To take the first example of a drive, orality, its aim implies both a type of relation, of incorporation, and a type of object, viz. one which can be incorporated or swallowed.

What does Freud means by “object” of a drive? For though it initially appears to hove the general sense of “object of passion”, ((Freud introduces “sexual object” as simply “the person from whom sexual attraction proceeds”, Three Essays, S.E., 7: 136.)) the focus of a passionate interest, and not merely the means through which tension is appeased, by the. end of the analysis we get a reversed picture:

‘It has been brought to our notice that we have been in the habit of regarding the connection between the sexual drive and the sexual object as more intimate than it in fact is. Experience of the cases that are considered abnormal has shown us that in them the sexual instinct and the sexual object are merely soldered together – a fact which we have been in danger of overlooking in consequence of .the uniformity of the normal picture, where the object appears to form part and parcel of drive. ~’7e are thus warned to loosen the bond that exists in our thoughts between drive and object. It seems probable that the sexual drive is in the first instance independent of its object; nor is its origin likely to be due to its object’s attractions. (Three Essays, S.E., 2: 147-8)

Object, then, functions as a means, “the thing in regard to which or through which the drive is able to achieve its aim” (“Instincts and their Vicissitudes”, S.E., 11; 122). This priority of satisfaction over that “in regard to which” the satisfying action finds its fulfilment means that what the object is, its specific nature, is of minimal importance to its function as that “in which” the aim finds its realisation. All the object needs to fulfil this function is to possess certain traits which trigger the satisfying action. How it comes to possess these traits may have very little to do with what it is in itself.

This “soldering” relation between a drive and its objects is responsible for two other dimensions of the notion of object in psychoanalysis: first, it allows us to separate sharply between “object” of a drive and “object” in the sense of “object of knowledge” – an “objective” object. It allows us to distinguish, in Laplanche’s terms, between ‘the notion of objectivity in the sense of knowledge and the notion of objectality in which the object, this time, is an object of the drive and not a scientific or perceptual object’. In other words, in the psychoanalytic concept of object conceptual room in created for the possibility ‘that the object of the drive can be, without prejudice, a phantasmatic object and that it is perhaps essentially such’ (Laplanche, op. cit.,p. 12). Second, given the functional definition of object, there is no necessity for it to designate a “total” person; it may be a partial or component object in Melarie Klein’s sense. As Laplanche puts it,

‘Partial objects include breast, penis, and numerous other elements related to bodily life (excrement, child, etc.), all of which have in common the fundamental characteristic of being, in fact or in fantasy, detached or detachable.’ (Ibid.)

Note that this detachability of the object of a drive not only from the drive itself but from “objective” objects of cognition or perception, allows the organisation into a unity of the multiplicity of ways in which the aim of a drive is clinically observed to be achieved. For though this unification is not an ‘objective’, classificatory, unification in terms of common features possessed by the ‘objects’ of the drive, nevertheless, it, and the functional definition of object that goes with it, bears within it an extraordinary possibility: that the great variety of forms in which the sexual drive in human beings achieves its aim is at one and the same time an indication of how the biological monotony of a performed instinct represents itself in mental life and yet, paradoxically, that the drive itself is not that monotony. The sexual drive seems to be an entity in which the traces of a biological necessity are constantly worked over or elaborated in terms of a psychic contingency – a capacity to “create” or to “find” objects in which or through which the drive accomplishes its aim. Two important questions pose themselves at this point: Firstly, what is it about the life of the organism which makes possible this “finding” of objects by the sexual drive? And, secondly, what are the processes whereby the human animal emerges as a sexual subject, i.e. a being for whom its sexual life can be an object of understanding but also, and a forteriori, an object of distortion or misunderstanding?


The answer to these two questions needs to be prefaced with an examination of what Freud has to say about the source of a drive. Though its definition in the Three Essays is complex and ambiguous, its general and abstract definition in “Instincts and their Vicissitudes” is clear: the Quelle is an unknown but theoretically knowable somatic process, a kind of biological ~, whose psychical translation would in fact be the drive. By the “source” of a drive is meant “that somatic process in an organ or part of the body from which there results a stimulus represented in mental life by a drive” (S.E., 14: 123). In a model frequently used by Freud to account for the relation between the somatic and the psychical, the metaphor of “delegation” or “representation” is employed to link a local biological stimulus to the way its transformed presence is marked in mental life. The drive is not a mere effect of the biological on the mental, for that would presuppose a distinct existence designated by “the mental”, formed independently of the biological. Nor is the drive a mere epiphenomenon of the biological, of how the biological appears or is experienced in mental life, for that would presuppose that the drive was a manifestation of the biological instead of a derivation from it. If the drive were an appearance in this sense, the idea that the economic factor we spoke of earlier, the “demand for work”, was what remained constant in the derivation of drives from instincts would become incoherent. Psychic force would be a mere picture of biological impulsion. Given Freud’s legal-political metaphor we are only justified, at this general level, to regard the drive as whatever in mental life inherits, or gains, or becomes invested with, the mandate to “represent” the local biological stimulus. As Freud points out, we do not know whether the somatic process in question is of a strictly chemical nature or whether it corresponds to the release of mechanical forces. The study of the sources of drives “lies outside the scope of psychology” and the problem might eventually be solved by biology (S.E., 14: 123). But the question of how something in mental life becomes a candidate for such a “mandate” is a, if not the central question in the Three Essays.

Freud’s general answer is in terms of the concept of anaclisis or, as Laplanche renders it, propping (Anlehnung). It should first be noted, that though the concept of “source” indicates a locus of articulation between instinct and drive, between biology and psychology, Freud theoretically paves the way for such an articulation by insisting that there exists an analogy between instinct and drive. The abstract characterisation of impetus, aim, object and source in “Instincts and their Vicissitudes” contains the sort of generality that makes it applicable equally to instincts and drives. To attempt a description of drives in general terms (as distinct from characterising the sexual drive) is to biologise them, to analyse them in terms which are also valid for instinctive patterns of behaviour of the sort one finds in the works of animal psychologists or ethologists. Laplanche points out for example, that the notion of “impetus” and the hydraulic model implied by it is used by thinkers such as Lorenz. The notion of an object which is at once contingent and specific is there in the idea of a perceptual constellation which triggers a specific act and capable of releasing a specific mechanism because it includes a series of determined traits. It is in terms of perceptual lures whose characteristics are made to vary that these triggers are defined. Finally, the notion of aim is also present in ethological analysis in the guise of a fixed behavioural pattern, a series of chain reactions ending in a permanent discharge of tension. (cf. op. cit., p. 13-14).

But this does not mean that Freud’s drives are the instincts of the ethologists. Though there may be an abstract analogy between them there is also a difference; and there has to be this particular conjunction of analogy and difference in order to obtain a derivation of the one from the other. Freud begins his examination of human sexuality with a polemic against the “popular” conception of sexuality at the time. From his description of this “popular” conception on the first page of Three Essays it is immediately seen that it is a biologising conception. The sexual drive is conceived on the model of an instinct, a response to a natural need whose paradigm is hunger. Here is how Freud puts it:

The fact of the existence of sexual needs in human beings and animals is expressed in biology by the assumption of a “sexual drive,” on the analogy of the instinct of nutrition, that is, of hunger. Everyday language possesses no counterpart to the word “hunger,” but science makes use of the word “libido” for that purpose.

Popular opinion has quite definite ideas about the nature and characteristics of this sexual drive. It is generally understood to be absent in childhood, to set in at the time of puberty in connection with the process of coming to maturity and to be revealed in the manifestations of an irresistible attraction exercised by one sex upon the other; while its aim is presumed to be sexual union, or at all events actions leading in that direction. (S.E., 7: p. 135)

The interesting thing here is that the “popular” image of human sexuality which Freud portrays is an image which can certainly seem scientific – a part of the science of life. It is an image which, as the work of ethologists amply attests, is certainly valid in domains other than human sexuality. Now, given that Freud’s account of this sexuality is prefaced by a demonstration of its inadequacy as an account sexuality in human beings, it plausibly leads to the conclusion that for Freud the sexual drive in humans is characterised precisely by its distance from the “popular” and biologising picture. Yet, qua drive, the sexual drive is still subject to the general abstract account which applies to both instincts and drives. There are here elements of an unbearably paradoxical view of human sexuality. The sexual drive in human beings is characterised by its difference from a biologising, instinctual, model, and yet it is held to be a drive, an entity which conforms to the abstract characterisation of an instinct!

Laplanche (op. cit. pp. 14-5) makes the ingenious suggestion that in view of this, the most fruitful way of reading the Three Essays is not by way of looking at Freud’s account of sexuality as a counter-picture to the “popular” one. Rather, it should be treated as an exposition by Freud of the genesis of human sexuality as if it were the loss of an instinct. In a movement which recalls the Hegelian Aufhebung (destroying-while-retaining?) Laplanche suggests the following structure for the Three Essays. The ‘first essay on “Sexual Aberrations” might be subtitled “The Instinct Lost”. The second, entitled “Sexuality” might be properly be called “The Genesis of Human Sexuality” and the third essay on “The Transformations of Puberty” might properly be called “The Instinct regained”, but, clearly, not regained at the level it was lost. Laplanche thinks a better title would be “The Instinct Mimed”.


A readinq of the Three Essays is thus suggested. Only the main outlines of this reading will be given so as to highlight the thesis that human sexuality is constructed through phantasy.

The first chapter of the Three Essays does not contain either a rigorous or an exhaustive account of sexual perversions. It is not a theory of perversions. Rather, the point of referring to perversions is to show how their existence demolishes any idea of a determined aim or object for human sexuality. The first chapter of the Three Essays reveals sexuality in a so-called normal adult thus: sexuality gives the appearance of an instinct but that is only the result of a historical evolution which at every stage of its development may bifurcate differently, resulting in the strangest aberrations.

The essence of the second essay is to redefine sexuality as a function of its infantile origins:

‘Our study of thumb-sucking or sensual sucking has already given us the three essential characteristics of an infantile sexual manifestation. At its origin it attaches itself to one of the vital somatic functions; it has as yet no sexual object, and is thus auto-erotic; and its sexual aim is dominated by an erotogenic zone (S.E., 7, 182-3)

It is worth remarking that these three characteristics are found not only in oral sexuality but in most manifestations of childhood and to a large extent go beyond the age of childhood; human sexuality in its entirety is marked by them.

Laplanche (op. cit., pp. 15-18) correctly observes that this notion of propping, or attaching itself to, is a fundamental term in Freud’s conceptual apparatus, though its pervasiveness is somewhat obscured by the usual translation of Anlehnung as “anaclisis”, and by the fact that in the psychoanalytic tradition, anaclitic refers to a type of object-choice, where a person’s sexuality is based on the object of the function of self-preservation. Thus, the term propping has been understood as a leaning on the object, and ultimately as a leaning on the mother. However, even though “leaning” of this latter sort is observed, Freud has an entirely different phenomenon in mind. What he is describing is a leaning of the drive, ‘the fact’, as Laplanche puts it, ‘that emergent sexuality attaches itself to and is propped upon another process which is both similar and profoundly divergent: the sexual drive is propped upon a non-sexual, vital function or, as Freud formulates it in terms which defy all additional commentary, upon a “bodily function essential to life”’ (ibid., p. 16).

This process of the propping of the drive on the function is delineated by Freud with the outmost precision in the basic example of orality. As is known, Freud distinguishes two phases: one consisting in sucking the breast, and a second, quite different from the first, which he calls “sensual sucking”. With the first there is a function, nourishment, which is a totally instinctual pattern of behaviour. The feeding pattern is one which the “popular conception” assumes to be the model of every instinct. There is an “impetus”, an accumulation of tensions which are due to specific humoral or tissual imbalance to which correspond the subjective impression of hunger; there is a “source”, the digestive system and those points at which appetite is specifically felt; there is a specific “object” which is not the breast but the substance, milk, which procures satisfaction; and there is, finally, a performed process or “aim”, breast-sucking, which consists of the search, for the nipple, feeding, the release of tension, pacification.

Now, the crucial point for Freud is that simultaneous with the feeding function’s achievement of satisfaction, a sexual process begins to appear. Parallel with the feeding, the nipple and the flow of warm milk stimulate the lips and the tongue. This stimulation is initially modelled on the function so that it is barely possible to distinguish between the two. Is the object the milk or already the breast? The source is still determined by the feeding process, the lips are also part of the digestive system. The aim is still quite close to the aim of nourishment. Ultimately, object, aim and source are intertwined in a single proposition which describes the process: “It’s coming in by the mouth”. “It” is the object, whether milk or breast; “coming in” is the aim and, whether a sexual or alimentary aim is in question, the process is a “coming in”; “by the mouth” is the source, and at that level there is the same duplicity of the mouth as a sexual organ and as an organ of the feeding function.

Laplanche concludes (op. cit.,p. 17) that the “propping” consists initially in that support which emergent sexuality finds in a function linked to the preservation of life. Freud says,

It is also easy to guess the occasions on which the child had his first experiences of the pleasure which he is now striving to renew. It was the child’s first and most vital activity, his sucking at his mother’s breast, or at substitutes for it, that must have familiarized him with this pleasure. The child’s lips, in our view, behave like an erotogenic zone, and no doubt stimulation by the warm flow of milk is the cause of the pleasurable sensation. The satisfaction of the erotogenic zone is associated, in the first instance, with the satisfaction of the need for nourishment. To begin with, sexual activity attaches itself to functions serving the purpose of self-preservation and does not become independent of them until later. No one who has seen a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile can escape the reflection that this picture persists as a prototype of the expression of sexual satisfaction in later life. The need for repeating the sexual satisfaction now becomes detached from the need for taking nourishment. (S.E., 7: p. 181).

What this passage makes clear is that the process of propping is not only revealed in the culminating satisfaction in feeding which results in something resembling orgasm, but in the fact that in an immediately subsequent phase we witness a separation of sexuality from the feeding function. Sexuality, at first entirely grounded in the function ( is simultaneously totally located in the movement which dissociates it from the vital function. The prototype of oral sexuality is neither the sucking of the breast, nor the general activity of sucking, but what Freud calls “sensual sucking”.

It is worth pausing to take stock of the conceptually decisive step. Freud’s theory takes here. In essence, what Freud identifies as the first ‘moment’ of the emergence of human sexuality is a process of seeking and finding of bodily pleasure which is of a very special kind, and which stamps sexuality, however much the latter might change and develop in the later life of the individual, with the signs of its origins, its birthmarks so to speak. What Freud discovers as infantile sexuality is precisely these “birthmarks”, these ‘originary’ features which characterise human sexuality as a whole. The characteristic ways pleasure is sought and obtained or frustrated in human sexual behaviour are most perspicuously grasped, Freud suggests, when it is noted that though sexuality is not something ‘given’ (an instinctual pattern) nor something imposed (an acquired disposition or habit), its essence lies in its simultaneously imitating and detaching itself from what it initially finds itself confined within, viz. the activity aimed at satisfying a vital function such as the need for nourishment. The pleasure the child is trying to renew in sensual sucking is a pleasure first become familiar in the context of obtaining nourishment, but now sought not as part of the instinctual action of nourishment. Yet, the way the pleasure is sought is strangely imitative of aspects of the vital function: the object of sensual sucking (the thumb), its aim (sucking, taking in, incorporating), its source (stimulation of lips, tongue and inner mouth) all in their way ape the corresponding elements of the vital function (nipple, ingestion of warm milk, stimulation of the digestive system).

Though with “sensual sucking” there is an abandonment of the vital order – the particular object, the breast, is abandoned, and both the aim and the source become autonomous with respect to feeding and the digestive system,it would be a mistake to think, as many have come to think, that the absorption in parts of one’s own body Freud labels “auto-erotism” marks the first stage of human sexuality. The mistaken view takes it that human sexuality emerges when the infant seeks pleasure in parts of its own body as a substitute for objects (the breast) located outside itself, objects which played a role in the fulfilment of the vital function of nourishment. This view runs together two different stages in the development of human sexuality: the first stage is the abandonment of the vital order, i.e. the seeking of a pleasure become familiar in the fulfilment of the vital function but now pursued in an imitative or phantastic manner; the second stage, that of auto-erotism, is the stage of the loss of the object of the drive. The distinction between abandonment and loss is crucial. While the former concept suggests that though the sexual drive does not initially have its own real object, there is nevertheless an object (of the vital function), which props its operation, the concept of loss of an object entails that we are talking about a stage in the development of the sexual drive which presupposes that there was, at an earlier stage, a sexual object.

Auto-erotism is not the moment of sexuality marked by the switching of an (partial) object of the sexual drive for another located on the infant’s body. Rather, it marks the stage in the development of the sexual drive wherein the general possibility.of the, drive “finding” diverse objects is generated. This explains the contingency and phantasmatic nature of the objects of the sexual drive in human beings. The possibility of the “finding” of objects by the sexual drive is located precisely in the fact that in auto-erotism the object lost and sought is not the real object of the vital function but the phantasmatic object which, in the emergence of the sexual drive, is displaced with respect to the object of hunger.


The claim that auto-erotism is not for Freud the first “moment” of human sexuality is rather central to the argument of this paper. It would help, therefore, to locate this realisation in Freud’s text. Let it be noted first that Freud makes an unpromising beginning, by defining auto-erotism – a term he borrows from the sexologist Havelock Ellis – as essentially the absence of an object: “a sexual activity … not directed towards other people”. The definition tempts one to complete it with the words “… but towards one’s own body”. To do so would be to totally cut off a type of sexuality from the general account of the genesis of sexuality based on its being propped on vital functions. It would also render utterly magical the emergence of a sexuality that is directed towards an object. Why would auto-erotism ever be abandoned? The form of this question quite cunningly captures the state of certain “aberrant” forms of sexuality~ but it also raises a key question in the theory of human sexuality. What is more, the idea of auto-erotism as a self-directed kind of erotism would run the danger of confusing it with narcissism, which for Freud is a form of object-choice. Freud’s definition of auto-erotism leaves a problem in that either there is a total absence of objects for the human being or there is from the very beginning a sexual object. This is a false impasse which can only be avoided it it is noted that auto-erotism is not the first stage of human sexuality for Freud. Freud, summarising the theses of the second essay, says in the third essay:

At a time at which the first beginnings’of sexual satisfaction are still linked with the taking of nourishment, the sexual instinct has a sexual object outside the infant’s own body in the shape of his mother’s breast. It is only later that he loses it, just at the time, perhaps, when he is able to form a total idea of the person to whom the organ that is giving him satisfaction belongs. As a rule the sexual drive then becomes auto-erotic and not until the period of latency has been passed through is the original relation restored. There are thus good reasons why a child sucking at his mother’s breast has become the prototype of every relation of love. The finding of an object is in fact a re-finding of it. (S.E., 7, p. 222).

What is crucial in this passage is that it states clearly that auto-erotism is not an initial stage of the sexual drive – the sexual drive becomes auto-erotic – and that that characterises this stage is not so much the absence of a sexual object but the loss of one. What this means, according to Laplanche, is that

‘… on the one hand there is from the beginning an object, but that on the other hand sexuality does not have, from the beginning, a real object’ (op. cit., p. 19)

This claim needs to be treated with the outmost care. It does not mean that sexuality has from the beginning an object but that it is not a real one. As pointed out earlier,at its first stage of emergence sexuality is hardly distinguishable from the vital function upon which it is going to prop itself. Thus, at the initial stage there is the real object of the feeding function, viz. the milk. What is lost at the auto-erotic turn is this real object of the vital function. But there is another object, the phantasmatic breast, i.e. the non-present-breast-of-the-sensual-sucking, which substitutes for the breast of the feeding function. It is this phantasmatic breast that is the object of the sexual drive and which is linked to the auto-erotic phase by way of loss. Thus, saying that the auto-erotic phase is characterised by the absence of an object is partly misleading. More strictly, the phase is marked by an “originary” relation: the absence-through-displacement of the object of the natural function. The sexual object and the sexual aim, the breast-in-phantasy and the sensual sucking, by their essential contiguity to the corresponding elements of the vital function, are precisely what renders them “delegates” in mental (sexual) life of the biological, the vital, order. In its moment of detachment from the biological order, which is also and thereby its “origin” in difference (from that order), the human sexual drive reveals its true essence: it is an entity whose very nature resides in its being a derivation from the instinct for nourishment. “Derivation” indicates here a complex relation. It describes the origin of the sexual drive, to use Laplanche’s fine phrase, ‘as a process which mimics, displaces and denatures an instinct taken in the totality of its four aspects, “source”, “impetus”, “object” and “aim”‘. Thus, the “finding” of a sexual object, the phantasmatic breast, is, in Freud’s famous phrase, a refinding of it. What this means, however, is not that what is refound in sexuality is the lost object of self-preservation, of hunger. Rather, the object one seeks to refind in sexuality is an object displaced in relation to the object of hunger. It is an object which while it “immitates” the way the object of hunger relates to the complex structure of aspects which define the instinct of nutrition, it does not “immitate” the object of hunger by resemblance. The phantasmatic breast of sensual sucking does not resemble the warm milk of nutrition, it symbolises it – it is an essentially symbolic object. Hence, there is generated the possibility of sliding almost indifferently from the one to the other. The object one seeks to refind in sexuality cannot, therefore, be rediscovered since this seeking of the sexual object, an object generated in phantasy, it nothing but an aspect of the representation in mental life of the abandonment of an instinctual process (and, hence, of its object).

The object which has been lost is not the same as that which is to be refound. At the very origin of the sexual quest, and what will essentially characterise it through all its phases, we find this lack of a real object of sexuality, even though there is from the very beginning a phantasmatic object which stands in a displaced and symbolic relation to the object of the vital function of nourishment. The auto-erotic aspect of human sexuality is nothing but the registration in mental life of this lack and the effort to remove it. But such removal is impossible to achieve: for whatever appeasement of tension or pleasure is found in a sexual object, what cannot of necessity be removed is the fact that the whole process of the sexual drive is in its very constitution a phantasmatic process, a process that “does duty” for something quite different and non-sexual.

The aim of the sexual drive stands in a similar relation to the aim of the feeding function; it is both different and “imitative” of it. But while the displacement of the sexual object with respect to the object of the vital function is due to the contiguity of the two – the milk and the breast – in the case of the aim, the transition from the vital to the sexual aim follows an analogical or metaphorical line, not an associative link through contiguity. Incorporation, for example, as psychoanalysis sees it, though it mimics ingestion, the aim of feeding, is an analogically displaced aim. It is not a question merely of an indifferent sliding from ingestion to its phantastic correlate, incorporation; rather, the complex meanings associated with incorporation, e.g. preserving within oneself, destroying, assimilating, are an extension of ingestion as a phantasmatic model to a whole series of other possible relations that go beyond the incorporation of food and the digestive system of the body. In psychoanalysis symptoms are sometimes interpreted by reference to incorporation at the level of other bodily orifices, the skin and even the eyes. What this means is that the process whereby the localised aim of what Freud calls “taking pleasure on the spot”, the way the sheer enjoyment of sensual sucking and the stimulating of the lips is propped upon the aim of the vital function of ingestion, serves as the nodal point where the fundamental activity of psychic incorporation is articulated metaphorically: “Coming in by the mouth” becomes the model of internality, or, rather, the way in which the primacy of the internal over the external is psychologically affirmed.


But how does this metaphorical displacement of the aim of the drive become possible? Since, unlike the case of the object of the drive, there is not a simple sliding from vital function to sexuality based on contiguity, there is need of a perspicuous way of drawing the connection between the phantastic scenario of incorporation in its considerable range of meanings and the specific, local, aim of “taking pleasure on the spot”. How does this local pleasure become the vehicle of a symbolic representation of a complex relation between the “internal” and the “external”?

The answer to this question cannot be understood without grasping how Freud regards the source of the sexual drive. To pun without punning, the origin of sexuality lies in its “source”. Laplanche points out (op. cit., p. 21) that there are two meanings of source in the Three Essays. Initially the word is used in its most concrete and local sense and it indicates an erotogenic zone, e.g. the labial zone stimulated by the passage of milk in the case of orality. The picture is that of a sexuality issuing forth from certain predetermined zones in accordance with a biological scheme – the way, for instance, certain physiological mechanisms give rise to the need for nourishment through certain local tensions. The concept of a source of the sexual drive is a clearly physiological one. But alongside this concept of source there is another one which is far more general and stands in a rather special relation to the first one. Already in the Three Essays, though increasingly so as Freud’s clinical experience widens, there is a movement from the erotogenic zone as a place for stimulation, to the idea that the capacity to be the origin of sexual stimulation is. not confined to these zones (the loci of the oral, and, urethral or genital sexuality). Beginning with these zones, Freud extends this capacity through a whole series: not just these zones with their cutaneo-mucous covering, but every cutaneous region: not only cutaneous regions, but every organ, including internal ones, are erotogenic (cf. his interpretation of symptoms of hypochondria in “On Narcissim: An Introduction: S.E., 14: 83-4): and, even further, that every function and, finally, every human activity can be erotogenic.

When dealing with “indirect sources” of sexuality in the Three Essays, Freud finds the “source” of sexuality in areas far removed from a biochemical process localisable in an organ or a collection of a type of cell: it is in as general a process as the mechanical stimulation of the body (eg. the rocking of an infant, the rhythmic jolts of a railway journey, or the muscular activity in sport), or in the intensity of intellectual effort that sexual stimulation may have its point of origin. It is in this connection that “painful” affects, such as suffering or anxiety, are seen as triggers of sexuality. What is important in this idea is that Freud comes to see sexual excitation as the source of the sexual drive not in terms of specific, local, physiological centres but as a general concomitant effect, a “marginal effect” (Nebenwirkung), of a great number of internal processes generated at the point where these processes pass a certain level of intensity. As Freud concludes:

Sexual excitation arises as a concomitant effect [Nebenwirkung: “marginal effect”] in the case of a great number of internal processes as soon as the intensity of those processes passes beyond certain quantitative limits. What we have called the component .drives of sexuality are either derived directly from these lnternal sources or are composed of elements both from those sources and from the erotogenic zones. (S.E., 7, 204-4).

The view is that with respect to sexual stimulation a certain priority attaches to “internal source” over “external” source, of “mental representative” over physiological process. There are sexual repercussions of anything occurring in the body beyond a certain level of intensity: any vital process, any vital function or agitation can be the source of sexuality. Sexuality, it appears, is found in the very deviation from the vital function and processes of the organism; a deviation already familiar in one of its first results, auto-erotic internalisation. There is a sense, then, in which the whole instinct is the source of the sexual drive; the erotogenic zone, the privileged somatic zone, is not a source of the sexual drive in the same sense that an instinct might be said to have a somatic source. The erotogenic zones are points particularly exposed to the marginal or concomitant effect, i.e. points where the propping of sexuality on a vital function is most ‘likely to reveal its double aspect of leaning on and detaching or deviating from.

Freud’s overall dialectic in the Three Essays is to exhibit sexuality or, at least, infantile sexuality as essentially a perversion. But it is not a perversion or divergence from a sexual instinct – a paradoxical point whose paradoxicality Freud doggedly chooses to disregard against the accusations of “pansexualism”. Freud’s view is paradoxical precisely because perversion is commonly defined as deviation from instinct, from a set path and aim. But for Freud there is no sexual instinct in anything like the way there is, for instance, an instinct for nutrition or self-preservation. Indeed, his attack on the “popular conception” is an attack on viewing sexuality on the biological model of an instinct. Consequently, in claiming that sexual perversions undermine this model, he is saying that what characterises the “exception”, the perversions, is both a characteristic of the sexual drive as a whole, i.e. that sexuality is in its essence perverse, and that the sexual perversions are not exceptions to a type of instinct, the sexual instinct, for there is no such thing.

Thus, sexuality in human beings is a perversion, and, yet, there is no sexual instinct for it to be a perversion of! What, then, is perverted? The answer is that it is vital functions that are perverted into sexuality. To quote Laplanche:

‘The drive properly speaking, in the only sense faithful to Freud’s discovery, is sexuality. Now sexuality, in its entirety, in the human infant, lies in a movement which deflects the instinct, metaphorizes its aim, displaces and internalizes its object, and concentrates its source on what is ultimately a minimal zone, the erotogenic zone’ (op. cit., p. 23)

“These zones, primarily sphincteral orifices like the mouth, anus, etc., represent points at which the bodily envelope is broken, thus creating the internal/external separation; they are also zones of exchange since the basic biological exchanges occur on them (e.g. feeding). Being such they also become loci on which particular and attentive care is lavished by the mother. In a deep model that will pervade the whole of Freud’s thought, these zones of care become, consequently, what first attracts erotogenic activity from the adult, the first instalments, as it were, of a seduction of the child into the adult world of “perverse” sexuality. what this means is that the erotogenic zones, being zones of biological exchanges, also become the points at which parental and, especially, mother phantasies are localised. It is through these zones, therefore, acting as breaking-in points, that is introduced into the child an alien internal entity which is what strictly speaking, sexual excitation is.


With the vicissitudes and development of this externally induced internal entity, the present preliminary study comes to an end. Its purpose was to locate in the theory whereby Freud traces the “origin” of human sexuality what it is that accounts for its phantasmatic character, and for the fact that it symbolises in mental life a diversion of, or deflection from, the vital order. Not only is human sexuality “hatched” in and through phantasy, it represents energies and forces diverted from the vital functions. It is these forces in their displaced and metaphoricised forms which, from the economic point of view, represent psychic investment in symbolic activity. Though no definition of symbolism or, indeed, of phantasy, has been reached, nevertheless the location of their possibility has been identified: it resides in the very movement by which sexuality “originates” in human beings.

Some tentative comments about the issues raised in §1 above are now in order. It was said there that two broad ways of looking at the phenomena of ‘psychic meaning’ missed out systematically the specific features of Freud’s object of investigation, viz. the ways in which ‘psychic reality’ is constructed through phantasy. The brief discussion in this paper outlined the theoretical implications of Freud’s attempt to trace the “perverse” character of the whole of human sexuality to certain aspects of its origins. Following Laplanche, the conclusion was that sexuality in its entirety lies in a movement which deflects, or deviates from, the instinct, and that it does so by metaphorising its aim, by displacing and internalising its object, and by concentrating or focusing into minimal, erotogenic, zones, its source, a source whose tributaries are indefinitely numerous and varies. If, then for Freud sexuality is constructed through phantasy, then his method of investigating its various manifestations must be one which is apt to decipher the ways in which psychic realith is. a process of metaphorising, displacing and internalising, concentrating or condensing, instinctual or vital processes.

However imperfect in detail, or at a given stage of its development, psychoanalytic method maybe, it cannot stray from the basic conceptions which define its object of study: if it has hypotheses about different aspects of psychic reality, they will concern the specific ways in which some vital or somatic functions are metaphorised, displaced, internalised or condensed into particular types of ‘psychic meaning’ – these are, inescapably, the horizons of both its speculations and their test.